In the introduction to my first book, A Girl's Guide to Business (published in 1998), I wrote: "There is nothing to stop appropriately qualified, motivated and committed women reaching the top. The glass ceiling is shattering and my experience demonstrates the biggest issue is dealing with the compromises that have to be made to achieve and sustain that career progress." But I added a caveat: "I do believe life is tougher for women in business than their male counterparts." Do I still believe this analysis to be true? Yes, I do.
When it comes to getting women onto boards and senior executive roles, the progress hasn't been as fast as I would have hoped or expected. When I took up my first board appointment in 1997, I thought by now, 20 years later, we would be doing a lot better.
There have been some attempts to bring transparency into the appointments process. In 2012, for example, the NZX introduced a new rule requiring listed companies to disclose in their annual reports the number of women on their boards and in senior management roles.
At the time, New Zealand-listed company boards had only 9 per cent women directors compared with 17 per cent in Australia. In 2013, the first year the figures needed to be disclosed, things were looking better though only 12 per cent of NZX company directors were women. Since then, the rise has been glacial. The latest figure available at the time of writing is 13 per cent for the first quarter of 2017.
There is only one woman CEO heading up a top 50 listed company, Kate McKenzie at Chorus, who was appointed in December 2016. Until recently, when the media called out a couple of recalcitrants, some listed companies had no female directors whatsoever.
Back in 1997, I thought it would be an evolutionary scenario - by that, I mean that as more women came through the executive ranks, we would see more of them assuming CEO roles and then going on to become directors. That hasn't happened, but I still have hope and confidence this will improve as more women are now coming through senior leadership. It's not good enough but the situation is improving and the evidence shows that companies with few, or no, women at their highest levels and little diversity in the wider sense will pay the price economically.
It's not easy to put a finger on exactly why progress has been so slow. There has been a virtual eradication of the old boys' club that once dominated the corporate boardrooms of New Zealand. Almost no vestiges of it remain, certainly not in big companies at any rate. Women are no longer seen as token appointees and the overall environment is better.
In the past, when we first started seeing women appointed to boards, some men thought they were being generous in supporting a female appointment and would say things like, "Well, women are good at HR and of course women make a lot of the decisions as consumers".
Those sentiments may well be correct but it's not the point. That sort of talk makes me angry because I am there, as is every other woman around the table, because we have the whole gamut of skills and experience needed for that particular board.
Of the boards I currently chair at the time of writing, 63 per cent of TVNZ's directors are women, The Warehouse has 38 per cent and Mercury 29 per cent. I've always believed having female colleagues with you around the boardroom table amplifies your own contribution. It's a little silver lining to be able to discuss issues such as clothes, shoes, make-up, children, managing work-life balance and the odd bit of gossip rather than listening politely to a discussion on rugby or golf in board downtime.
On one occasion, [at TVNZ] we were expecting a visit from the then Minister of Broadcasting, Amy Adams, and had taken a break in advance of her expected arrival. The subject of make-up arose and, specifically, the challenges of finding a good mascara. The minister walked in unannounced and I apologised for not meeting her at the door, and explained what we had been discussing. Amy's reaction was priceless: "Oh, what is the best one?" It would be fantastic to see more boards where the conversational dynamic changes, both within and outside the formal agenda, because of enhanced diversity.
Why the dearth of women? That's the big question and there is no single or easy answer. It's probably a combination of several quite potent issues.
It's a generalisation but women are tending to have their families later. Many are in their early to mid-30s. That's the point where those women are starting to make progress in their careers but the body clock is also ticking. If they do decide to have a family the interruption comes just as they are poised to move into higher roles. When I first went onto a board, my son was in his twenties so it was a very different proposition.
Another issue is that the precursor to a substantial governance career is most often senior executive or professional success.
But it's a myth that most women don't want top executive roles. In 2015 McKinsey and LeanIn.Org surveyed 118 US companies and concluded not only were women under-represented at every level in the corporate pipeline but, at the current rate of progress, it would take 25 years to reach gender parity at senior management level and more than 100 years to hit the C-suite (chief executive level and direct reports).
The report said a key reason women face obstacles on their path to senior leadership was that most female managers work in areas such as law or human resources, rather than the core functions with profit and loss responsibility that more often lead to the top.
The study also found 74 per cent of the companies surveyed claimed gender diversity was a top CEO priority but most of their workers didn't believe them.
One of the other challenges is to reduce the average age on boards from where it has been historically. In the past, some directors viewed board positions as a reward for their executive careers and stayed there for as long as they possibly could.
So things are better than they were, but nowhere near where they need to be.
For boards where there is no diversity, the question needs to be asked of the Chair as to why they can't see their way clear to finding a qualified woman to appoint. If there were no women on the shortlist, they should be demanding answers from their nominations committees and external search firms. It is hard to believe there are no qualified women available who could add wisdom to these boards.
As I've already noted, the government has been leading the charge by encouraging diversity on the boards of state-owned companies. Current Prime Minister Bill English, as Minister of Finance, spent a great deal of time working on improving the statistics for Crown companies but also on promoting diversity to private-sector influencers.
Gender, of course, is only the first frontier of diversity, as boards are still predominantly white and middle class. We also need more Maori and Pacific Island representation at board level and, given New Zealand's fortunes are increasingly linked to Asia and in particular China, we need to capitalise on initiatives such as the Asian Leaders group to secure Asian talent.
I am opposed to the concept of quotas because these imply the "diverse" appointment has been made only to bring the numbers up to the required level. That is demeaning to any appointee selected on the basis of fulfilling an imperative to get to a prescribed metric.
What advice would I give to a woman seeking a career in governance or the C-suite?
To be a good director, capable of asking the right questions, you need to be an independent thinker, widely read and have a strong command of financial information. You'll need essentially the same qualities you would need to be a top chief executive: honesty, integrity, high IQ and EQ (emotional intelligence), the capacity to absorb and retain information, the ability to communicate, a willingness to listen and keep an open mind, and courage and tenacity.
Don't be rabidly ambitious but make sure you are getting credit for the things you do. Don't let your light be hidden under somebody else's bushel.
Remember, it's never too late to learn. Good directors and CEOs never stop learning.
A tertiary qualification such as an MBA is extremely useful in the corporate world, but there are a raft of shorter courses you can access to plug specific knowledge gaps.
I am also driven to keep up with technology. I have been an "early adopter" all of my life. I remember being on an executive retreat at Radio New Zealand where Nigel Milan had invited some of the faculty from Waikato University to talk to us. Their topic was something none of us had ever heard of before - the World Wide Web. I was transfixed and went home to tell Brian about this phenomenon. We found a block ad in Trade and Exchange for a company advertising internet installations. The company was called ihug and we were among its first subscribers.
It was the same with the iPad. When I saw the initial publicity, I knew how important this device would become. Luckily for me, I was in Washington DC on the day of the launch so managed to procure one of the very first on the market.
If she really wanted to get to a particular position, a smart young woman would scope it out and say, "What steps do I need to take to get there?" Don't slavishly adhere to a particular route if other opportunities arise which will take you forward, albeit down a different path. Most of my career has been characterised by being offered opportunities for promotion and new roles. But you must perform. When people suggest you might be capable of taking on bigger responsibilities, you need to think, "I can't afford to let that person or the organization down."
Now for one of the most important pieces of advice I can give: be very careful about who you choose as a life partner, because having that support makes an enormous difference. As I've already mentioned, some people can get through the challenges of a career without that, and do the job on their own, but for me, having Brian's unwavering support has been crucial. I'm not just talking about financial or physical safety. It is about being with someone who will genuinely be committed to your best interests all through your life together.
For a lot of women, juggling work and childcare, and managing that work-life balance, are the hardest things they face.
My advice is to buy in as much help as you need. Don't ever feel guilty about having a cleaner or a full-time or live-in nanny, or someone to mow the lawns. It's the only way you will get through. It's the trivial stuff that will get to you - like having to clean the car on a Sunday afternoon. I'm not just talking about women here. In my view, professional, working couples need to buy in significant support if they want any leisure and down time, and I can't understand why people are so reluctant to do it.
Childcare is the hardest problem to solve. Having a full-time nanny is an option and schools are getting smarter about providing early childhood education. Most private schools have that now. As a parent, it would be a massive issue if you felt your children were being disadvantaged because you were at work. But there is light on the horizon. Companies are increasingly showing they're prepared to accommodate career breaks, especially if the employee has valuable skills they don't want to lose.
In fact, I look at what I've already described as the "new breed of male CEOs" - men like Fraser Whineray, Adrian Littlewood, Kevin Kenrick and Nick Grayston - and they're all looking for, and trying to retain, the best possible talent, regardless of gender, age or ethnicity. When Fraser was first appointed, one of the first things he asked for was a list of Global Women's Breakthrough Leaders' course alumni. There will always be exceptions but I think a lot of people and organisations are prepared to bend over backwards to provide flexibility so talented women can get to the top.
Ironically, one unfortunate outcome of being a female chief executive is that sometimes your colleagues' wives don't like you. I don't think most of them believe anything untoward is going on. Rather - and this is a huge generalisation - some wives hate the fact that you, a woman, have been promoted above their husbands. In their mind you are getting in the way of their husband's career aspirations (not to mention theirs as an upwardly mobile executive wife!). It's getting rarer as time goes on but there are still a few wives out there who live their lives vicariously through their husbands' careers.
Several initiatives are in train to address the dearth of women CEOs and directors, and they will, over time, provide real traction.
I'm on the board of ANZ Bank New Zealand, which has 8000 employees in New Zealand. As a board, one of the KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) we measure against is reviewing the percentage of women between level 1 and level 4; it has increased 1 per cent every year.
The search firms, too, have a lot to answer for. As a Chair who is regularly looking for new directors, I have been given long-lists of candidates from recruiters with no women on them. On one particular occasion we sacked the search firm because of its bias in compiling the list.
I wouldn't go so far as to say the glass ceiling has disappeared - there are still some very big shards there - but during the time I've been in corporate governance, I've seen a massive change in attitudes towards women at senior levels.
For those of us trying to help younger women to come through, I can see a far greater number of overt male champions looking to assist that effort. Clearly they recognise that without accessing the female 50 per cent of the gene pool, they will not get the best outcomes for the companies they're charged with serving.
I take heart because when [cases of sexism] find their way into the media or the public domain, as they usually do, they get slammed pretty quickly and there's a significant backlash.
I think about Alasdair Thompson, the former Employers and Manufacturers Association (EMA) chief executive, who in June 2011 leapt into the pay-gap debate by saying women earn less than men because many have extra sick days every month and need more time off to care for children. ("I know it's awful but it's true," he told astonished reporters. "It's a fact of life.") Soon after, Thompson and the EMA parted ways. And remember rugby league legend Graham Lowe who, when asked whether Labour MP Jacinda Ardern would make a good Prime Minister, told broadcaster Paul Henry she was "a pretty little thing" (though, to be fair, he also said, "And what she says, she speaks pretty smart".) People are discovering those sorts of comments are not acceptable.
Men who have behaved inappropriately in the past are being uncovered and there will be some dire consequences.
If you talk to recruitment agencies about finding people for CEO or board roles, they will tell you a woman will typically not push herself forward unless she ticks all the boxes whereas a man - and this is another generalisation - will put himself forward if he thinks he meets 60-70 per cent of the criteria.
I've been involved in mentorship schemes and talking to women about their self-doubt, which is generally unfounded. I keep saying to them, "You can do this, you just have to push yourself forward, don't be intimidated." With the appropriate skills and experience they can occupy these senior roles and perform successfully.
Many of us who have been around a while are spending a lot of time assisting these women through the pipeline and getting them not only in a position where they're qualified but also ensuring they've got the confidence to keep pushing for these roles.
The problem is that it's not happening fast enough. Getting more women on boards is part of the answer. If you're sitting there at board level, you'll be looking at the long-list for the CEO's role, and for the roles just below that, and saying, "Where are the women in this list"?